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Why Are Sports’ National Governing Bodies Different in the US?

Release Date: May 1, 2024

We hear a lot about building new things for the 21st century. What about Olympic and Paralympic sport in the U.S.? Well, let’s start with how amateur sport was organized in the 20th century.

Ted Stevens Act

The “Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act,” more commonly known as the Ted Stevens Act, became federal law in the US in 1978. It sought to organize and codify amateur sports in America and formally establish the relationship between the government and the then United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In many other countries, sports administration was an arm of the federal government and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) received federal funding. The USOC, now the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), is different in that the U.S. government provides no funding to support its Olympic and Paralympic teams. Under the Ted Stevens Act, USOPC is an independent organization but the federal government may intervene to provide oversight. It also grants exclusive use in the US of the word “Olympic” and several other trademarks to the USOPC. It established the system of national governing bodies (NGBs) for individual sports throughout the US and guaranteed athletes a voice in the running of NGBs. The legislation defined “amateur.” The 1998 revision of the Act changed this aspect to reflect the changing nature of Olympic sport away from amateurism.

Scandal and an Independent Commission

One of the major roles of NGBs is to protect the athletes under their care. Scandals in athletics, figure skating, and, most famously, gymnastics, led to the U.S. Congress creating the Independent Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Because the USOPC and NGBs have special status under the Ted Stevens Act, Congress is the only body with the authority to investigate Olympic and Paralympic sport authorities in the US. The Commission, established by the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020, was tasked with modernizing the administration of sports in America, especially in relation to protecting young athletes and improving access and equitability. The Commission included sport executives, politicians, Olympians, Paralympians, coaches, athlete advocates and more attorneys than you can shake a gavel at.

Finally, A Final Report

After 3 1/2 years of work, including public hearings in Fall 2023. They published the final report, Passing the Torch: Modernizing Olympic, Paralympic, & Grassroots Sports in America. It is worth a read if you can wade through the academic and political language.

But if a few hundred pages, multiple appendices, and legalese is not your thing, let’s summarize. Amateur sport in America has problems. Men and women do not have equal access. Neither do disabled athletes versus able-bodied athletes. Young athletes are not adequately protected from abuse of all kinds. Money is not flowing to those who either need it or deserve it. The current bureaucratic structure does not serve athletes or sports as it should. Despite the success enjoyed by Team USA at the Olympics and Paralympics, the underlying structure is inadequate.

Recommendations

Thankfully, the Commission has suggestions: update the Ted Stevens Act to improve access and equity, provide more investment in youth sports and fight the trend for over-specialization at too young of an age, get serious about SafeSport with greater funding and better coordination, improve the quality of coaching at all levels, and increase accountability and transparency especially at NGBs.

Will It Work?

As discussed by the Play Project at the Aspen Institute, many questions still remain. What do these recommendations mean for the day-to-day operations of the USOPC and NGBs? Is the federal government inserting itself into youth sports? Will this help the millions of athletes who compete but will never win an Olympic or Paralympic medal? How do state governments fit into this equation? What about the NCAA? And most of all, where will the money come from?

Nothing about this issue is simple, easy, or cheap. Protecting athletes at all levels, ages, and abilities must be the primary goal of everyone involved. Watch this space. We will keep you updated.

–Alison Brown